I heard, and my body trembled / my lips quivered at the voice
Rottenness entereth into my bones / and I tremble in my place
Because I must wait quietly for the day of trouble / for the coming up of the people that invadeth us (Habakkuk 3:16).
All has been said. Now the waiting began.
Habakkuk acutely perceived the iniquity and injustice pervasive in Judah in the latter days of the monarchy and wanted to know why YHWH was doing nothing about it (Habakkuk 1:1-4). YHWH responded, making it clear that He was quite aware of the situation and had a most terrifying solution: He was raising up the Chaldeans to overrun and destroy Judah (Habakkuk 1:5-11). Habakkuk attempted to make good theological sense out of this response, asking YHWH how He could have a more wicked nation overrun a comparatively more righteous nation in light of His holiness (Habakkuk 1:12-2:1). YHWH responds by affirming the salvation of the righteous and the end of the arrogant and presumptuous by the very earthly realities in which they trust: as they overpower, so they will be overpowered; the wicked in Judah will be overpowered by the Chaldeans as they overpowered the less fortunate; the Chaldeans in turn will be overpowered by another empire, and so on (Habakkuk 2:2-17).
Habakkuk responds to YHWH’s declarations as promised (Habakkuk 2:1), yet in the form of a prayer-hymn (Habakkuk 3:1-19). Habakkuk trusted in YHWH because he had heard and believed in the great acts of salvation in Israel’s past: the Exodus, the wanderings in the Wilderness, the Conquest, YHWH’s constant deliverance of the kings (Habakkuk 3:1-15). From those acts of deliverance Habakkuk recognized both YHWH’s great power exercised in His anger and His ability and willingness to deliver His people even from the strongest of foes. Habakkuk was one who was righteous and lived by his faith; he did not doubt for a moment all the devastation about to come upon Judah along with the eventual humiliation of Babylon (Habakkuk 3:16-19). YHWH has decreed; it will take place.
We know that Habakkuk’s confidence is well-placed because we know how it all goes down. Within a few years or decades, depending on when Habakkuk prophesied, the Chaldeans would invade Judah, destroy Jerusalem and the Temple, and exile its inhabitants (586 BCE; 2 Kings 25:1-21). Forty-seven years later Babylon itself would be overrun by the Persians (539 BCE; cf. Daniel 5:25-31). Babylon would be destroyed and rebuilt by the Persians; when the Seleucid Macedonians decided to build a new capital at Ctesiphon up the river, Babylon lost importance and soon faded. By the time the Abbasid caliphs built their capital even further up the river at Baghdad, Babylon was a ruin, lost to the sand until European archaeologists who believed in the name of the God of Israel would excavate it. Yes, Babylon would humiliate Judah, but Babylon would suffer even greater humiliation. YHWH would vindicate His name.
While we know that, and Habakkuk has confidence in it, as Habakkuk puts down his stylus, such is all in the future. For the moment he must wait, and the expectation of terror leads to very physical, and visceral, consequences: Habakkuk’s body trembled, his lips quivered, rottenness entered his bones, and he trembled at the magnitude of what was about to take place (Habakkuk 3:16). Habakkuk knew the terrifying things the Chaldeans would do the people of God and the house of YHWH. It was not yet, but it would be, and soon. Perhaps Habakkuk lived to see the devastation; perhaps not. Regardless, the book of Habakkuk ends with this pregnant expectation: it is going to happen, it will be ugly, YHWH will be vindicated. But it is not yet. When it comes, it will come speedily; but it is not yet (Habakkuk 2:2-3).
As Christians we should be able to sympathize with Habakkuk. We ought to be acquainted with God’s great acts of salvation and judgment: Jesus of Nazareth lived, died, rose again, ascended to the Father, and was given all authority (Acts 2:14-36, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Jerusalem was visited again in judgment, this time by the Romans; the Temple was again destroyed, never to be rebuilt (Matthew 24:1-36). The Romans, in turn, would meet their end (Revelation 12:1-19:21). The promise has been made that Jesus will return as He ascended (Acts 1:9-11): all will rise from the dead, the judgment will take place, the righteous will spend eternity in the Lord’s presence, and the wicked will be given over to their desires in hell (Matthew 25:1-46, Acts 17:30-31, Romans 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-5:11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Revelation 20:11-22:6). As Christians, we have every reason to maintain confidence that all these things will take place. Yet we find ourselves in the same position as Habakkuk: we are to wait quietly (2 Thessalonians 3:12). It is not delayed nor will it delay; God is exhibiting patience toward all so they can come to repentance (2 Peter 3:1-9). When it comes, it will come quickly; none will escape (2 Peter 3:10-13).
And so we Christians wait for the judgment. We must keep living by our faith and practice righteousness (Habakkuk 2:4, Matthew 24:42-25:13). It may be within a few years, decades, or perhaps centuries; we cannot know. But we can know that it will happen. The Lord will return. But we wait, as Habakkuk waited. Maranatha!
Ethan R. Longhenry